The Daily Mail has finally joined the battle for pre-eminence on the iPad with the soft-launch of its first proper native newspaper app, the Daily Mail Plus. I have spent some time with it over the past few weeks, and can report that it has raised the bar significantly for newspaper apps.
When I say “its first proper”, the Mail Online website itself has had its own app for some time, the MailOnline for iPad. It does a job channeling the website’s brand of popular, picture-led, middle-market news, but it is hardly what one would call beautiful. Mail Plus is more of a step in that direction – an app developed like they really meant it – using a team of around 60 people, including commercial, developers and designers.
The executives at the Mail have emphasised that the publications are different beasts, despite sharing large amounts of content. The Mail Plus is not one to rely on the sidebar purveying a stream of celebrity news, or journalism crack, as the MailOnline’s editor Martin Clarke has described it.
The most striking feature of Daily Mail Plus is how carefully it has been designed to express the look and feel of the hard-copy Daily Mail, which chimes with recent research by Poynter suggesting app readers prefer a print-like experience. To this end, the editor reportedly insisted on congruence in every detail, a factor which allegedly delayed the soft-launch. This punctiliousness has paid off, however, with an app that feels tight and tidy, like a freshly printed newspaper rather than an over-complicated website. There is even a Jobsian zen about it.
The Mail Plus is also a major advance in interactivity at the quality end of the news app market, where rivals include The Times, The Guardian and The Daily Telegraph. Fingers are engaged to the right degree and pop-up surprises abound. Images are big, gorgeous, swipeable and in the “360 degree Panorama” feature – a photograph that captures 360 degrees of its surroundings – can be entered as if through the looking glass. Its puzzle section is bumper and introduces a social, competitive element, while its TV Guide offers the ‘second screen’ experience to complement what’s on the telly. And in a recent addition, the app has launched a sub-section called The Way We Were, a nostalgia magazine aimed squarely at the silver generation – an inspired way to welcome a new (old) generation to an area of publishing that is often guilty of ignoring them.
The app is certainly engaging, or what they call “sticky”. Reports suggest the app’s executives have even more features up their sleeve to introduce in stages after the official launch in the next few weeks. My guess is they’re holding them back because they don’t want to frighten the horses ie they need to break readers in gently. The ‘Mom test’ of ‘can my mom use this?’ seems to have been applied here too (see my blogpost on Flipboard’s Mike McCue).
So before the hoopla of the big launch, when the Mail mother-ship unleashes its might to promote its digital offspring, I have compiled a brief user experience report that takes into account criteria such as navigation and the look and feel of the app.
Front page: the first 10 seconds
The app’s front page, top, is as faithful to the newspaper front page as could be achieved, using the same fonts and similar story hierarchy – news splash, picture-led human news story, and feature puff below the masthead. The reader is immediately invited to swipe – the iPad reader’s favourite activity, studies show – by the scrolling bar which features puffs for the puzzles, TV guide, Garry Rhodes cookery demo and 360 Panorama.
My initial impression was that the page looked a little clunky with its cartoonishly large headline fonts, but with use that impression has changed. There is something about the Mail formula that requires the punch and clarity of its message to be conveyed in a headline that occupies the page. Some would call it overly strident or lacking nuance, but without putting too fine a point on it, there is also a less-is-more simplicity at play.
Readers will have noted right from the download that the app only works in portrait format. Most serious-minded newspapers design their app to switch between landscape or portrait form, depending on the reader’s taste. Not Mail Plus, in keeping with its uncompromising commitment to um, mirroring the Daily Mail. This is an advantage in terms of allowing the design to concentrate the power of its functionality into one format. It also means less code under the hood. I appreciate that the Mail is saying, ‘this is how we publish, tough if you don’t like it’ but when I’m in lean-back mode I often use my iPad in landscape. It’s how my iPad cover’s stand is configured, and of course, video is always best consumed in landscape. This is a small drawback for me as a user. I look forward to seeing stats on their readers’ response to this feature.
A swipe brings a ‘Welcome’ page in white-on-blue text featuring an intro blurb plus a list of sub-sections (news, features, sport, exclusives, weather and link to video on how to navigate the app). A tap of each brings up a pop-up menu of headlines plus images in a vertical scroll bar containing the articles the editors wish to promote in that edition.
It’s relatively clean but not the most visually pleasing. This may be to do with the light text on dark background, though I’m not convinced by the concentration of section titles at the bottom left corner. It’s not where my eye wants to go, and the buttons are a little too close together to welcome an easy press of the finger.
Readers who enjoy an unfiltered overview of the paper can find a Newsstand-driven page menu in the top right corner. This provides horizontal-scrolling, zoomed-out overview of the pages that are large enough (though could be larger) to read headlines and get a sense of what might be worth reading.
Page UX: maximising stickiness
The user experience in the rest of the app is compelling. The portrait format allows the designers to own the pages and give full rein to the Mail’s signature full-body length photographs. Unlike most news apps, its pages often have two and sometimes even three stories, with an invitation to ‘tap to read more’ bringing up a single pop-up column of scrollable copy. This comes in a bigger font than the original body copy, which took a bit of getting used to. Panel stories are dealt with neatly, scrolling up and down so that the reader doesn’t have to leave the page to absorb them.
Stories led by images are given large spaces for a ‘gallery’ which is a swipeable series of photos that often include video footage. This gives the reader crucial extra value – though at the risk of diluting editorial selection. Mostly they get the balance right, in contrast to their cousin MailOnline.
App designers are waking up to the fact that pop-ups are crucial in providing the surprise factor – and serendipity – that can make their apps really sticky. Mail Plus has some of the best I’ve seen in a mid to quality market news app. The designers have clearly had fun with elements of images that enter the frame at various surprising angles – a woman carried aloft by balloons, for example – and many stories that may stem from a letter or document have these documents in their full glory only a tap away.
The 360 Panorama: through the looking glass
One of the app’s most talked about innovations is the Panorama 360 shot, pictured, an image captured by a camera that composes its entire surroundings in three dimensions into an image that can be navigated to some extent by the reader’s finger. The ‘photograph’ here is of a sand sculpture exhibition starring C3PO and R2D2 of Star Wars fame, offering a compelling way to have a nosey around without the risk of destroying the exhibits or being bumped into by crowds.
Deep pictures: the Pippa shot
Very rare is the issue of the Daily Mail that does not contain several page-depth photographs of women, usually celebrities and occasionally female politicians. Mail Plus continues the tradition – for example with these shots of Sophie, the Countess of Wessex, who the Mail seems to be trying to turn into the new Pippa Middleton. In Mail Plus, you get two for the price of one with a pop-up that gives you the back view too – or Pippa shot – because its readers want to see all of the celeb (and where possible their cellulite). Feminist objections aside, the Mail execs would argue that they’re only giving their readers what they want. Either way, it’s an engaging use of images in an app that can only increase the time spent using it.
TV Plus: the Second Screen
Stickiness is the name of the game with Mail Plus’s TV Guide, which is virtually a fully fledged publication on its own which takes mass-market newspaper apps into the much vaunted era of the “Second Screen”, in which readers use their iPad as a companion to whatever they’re watching on TV. This “social TV experience”, powered here by Zeebox, is proving to be a powerful point of engagement in the mobile space. With this platform, the reader/watcher can log onto Facebook and Twitter and start chats about the show, offering their two cents’ worth as the drama unfolds. Features include an at-a-glance measure of Buzz (a Twitter bird shaped vessel) ie how many people are talking about the show and links to show websites and other popular shows on TV, as well as an hour-by-hour ‘audience trend’ bar graph which shows peak viewership times. It’s not that clear who that’s supposed to be appealing to, but I guess it’s data. We all want more data, right?
Coffee Break Plus
The Daily Mail has always had an excellent selection of puzzles, and Mail Plus’s 30-puzzle Coffee Break Plus section is rammed full of them, with more sudokus than you can shake a chewed pencil at. Features such as a stopwatch and hint mode allow for a truly immersive puzzle experience. No more hunting round the house for erasers. And the next stage, the Mail promises, is playing for prizes against other Mail readers, where speed of completion will be rewarded rather than the luck of the draw – ie no more choosing the winning entry out of hat, which is how it used to be.
A short word on advertising (a big design issue that deserves its own entire blog piece). While the ads have become more interactive – I’m thinking the car ads that let you look at the vehicle around from every angle, like a shoe, with links to websites containing photographs of every inch of the car inside and out – they are still very much in the newspaper mode, separating pages without actually sitting next to copy. This is a space ripe for innovation, and I look forward to the app’s next iteration in this regard.
The sports section of any newspaper is crying out for ‘bells and whistles’, with so many stats and facts to dress up a match report or analysis of a team’s season. No surprise then that Sports Plus takes the ball and runs with it. The swipeable galleries come into their own here, giving an almost cinematic overview of the action in full glory of retina display. And the full post-match interviews are usually available here too. Next stop, highlights packages? Or would that detract from the textual analysis? Pop-ups wise, they have introduced a handy ‘pull-up’, a small green tag at the bottom of the middle column of text which shows information such as a league table or pre-match ‘watching brief’. Match reports come with a ‘match facts’ pop-up in a similar position. Sports Plus is also tuned right into Twitter, with a round-up of sportsmen’s latest tweets, and invitation to readers to tweet its sports journalists.
Is yesterday’s newspaper really just kitty litter lining? Hell no. Today’s smart newspaper editor scoops up that archive and re-deploys it in a ‘nostalgia magazine’ with interactivity cranked up to 11. That means old adverts reborn on the iPad’s retina-display, and that means old newsreels played on an old-time telly (the ‘Not so Newtube’ – brilliant), as well as hit parades rolling back the years. The possibilities are myriad. The Mail Plus seems to be the first newspaper which is making proper use of the historical information it has at its disposal. The Way We Were packs 24 pages with some creatively re-imagined content: classic photographs deconstructed with tabbed up captions, price comparisons through the decades, features facilitating reunions, celebs’ memories, fashion howlers, and naturally, Daily Mail front pages on ‘this day’ 10, 25, 30, 40 and 50 years ago. Right out of the blocks, I love The Way We Were. The Telegraph, traditional home of the well-heeled pensioner, should be quaking in its boots.
Here are a few more stills (can you tell that I like it?)
The Daily Mail Plus is a bold step forward for newspaper apps, and achieves its aims of maintaining and projecting the Mail brand to its market of loyal middle-England, middle-aged readers. This is an elegant app to suit digital immigrants from the print edition in 2013, in accordance with the orthodoxy that news app readers currently prefer a print-like experience. While it works for the market today, I believe this will change, as ‘readers’ become more sophisticated app users and demand more functionality in more dimensions. Ten years from now, I doubt the Mail app will look quite as much like a newspaper. Indeed, ten years from now, in a land of Google Glass and its offshoots, we may even be asking, iPad what’s that?